Thrill Me is one of the more obscure musicals of the last fifteen or so years. Not widely known, and far less widely understood, the minimalist show – with its inherent Off-Off-Off Broadway feel – tackles subject matter seldom approached by musical theatre (or at least not with the same level of aching sincerity as defines the core of Thrill Me). At one glance, it’s not hard to see why it has dwelled in obscurity, where it is likely to stay. But such is the design of author and original star, Stephen Dolginoff – the man who conceived, composed, and wrote the piece back in 2003. Thrill Me is a fringe piece – one that challenges its audience and its performers in equal measure.
The mere premise of the piece demands its own paragraph, at least, to explain. History enthusiasts will likely be familiar with the 1920s murder case upon which the piece is based. The case swept a nation after two self-obsessed college boys abducted and murdered a child, Bobby Franks, in Chicago. Their reason for the slaying? They did it simply because they could. They did it for the thrill. Their names were Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. For months, papers speculated the two young men’s psychology and homosexuality, to try to make sense of the nonsensical (and to sell papers). It’s not what would traditionally inspire a musical. As a piece about a murder, Thrill Me is entirely under-qualified. But as an emotionally-charged exploration of a relationship between two damaged, dependent, poor-little-rich-boys with a fetish for destruction? With the right performers, Thrill Me is a success.
The music is hit-and-miss, but was interpreted well by musical director and pianist Daniele Buatti. Director Terence O’Connell has fittingly assembled this thematically ambitious piece, utilising the small space and chamber team to create a tangible, dimensional atmosphere, air thick with blood and impending doom. Both musical director and director navigated the production’s two powerhouse performances with skill.
The devil has a pretty face with Stephen Mardsen’s Richard Loeb. From the beginning, it became obvious that Madsen was tackling some vocal fatigue – starring in the now-touring production of Heathers as brooder JD is no small task – yet his intimate, menacing whisper was luckily appropriate for the role. He is brilliant in Heathers, and in Thrill Me he plays JD’s early-20th-Century equivalent of a brooding young adult male thirsty for destruction. Mardsen’s charisma is palpable; it is truly believable that he could enchant and control someone weaker than him at his very whim.
Also fresh from the Heathers stage, Vincent Hooper carried out his role of the angst-ridden, insular Nathan Leopold with depth and clarity. His vocals effortlessly glided throughout the almost completely sung-through show with ease and expression, and not once do we doubt his dedication to his twisted lover. His characterisation ranged from slightly cartoonish camp, to a tragic embodiment of despair. By the end of the performance, Hooper’s Leopold proves that murder’s not an art, but a game. Heathers flaunts Hooper’s comedic chops; Thrill Me proves his dramatic ability.
The stagecraft elements were all adequate, detail-oriented, and at times quite innovative, thanks to designer Daniel Harvey and lighting designer Jason Bovaird. Period costumes and props added texture to the context, and the multi-levelled stage space was effective; when “perfect superman” Loeb took to the top, he became how he saw himself, Leopold looking dotingly on. The lighting signifying the Roadster was particularly notable during one of the most striking and disturbing scenes – as Madsen’s Loeb performed his eerily believable abduction, his gaze was fixed almost directly at this reviewer in the front row. Aside from Nothing Like a Fire (probably the best song in the piece, with its piercing harmonies and warped romance), Roadster was the most arresting and unsettling scene.
The piece is flawed. Many moments border on the absurd, at times more strangely humorous than dramatic. However Ghost Light, in association with Moving Light Productions, have presented a sensitive and entertaining production of this offbeat piece, owing much of its success to its two magnetic stars. A creative team has gelled beautifully together in creating this unique production, presented as part of the current Midsumma festival.
For tickets: www.chapeloffchapel.com.au